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MOVIE REVIEWS : A Reverential ‘Chaplin’: Send in the Clown : Stately Pace at Odds With Subject’s Slapstick Comedy

TIMES FILM CRITIC

Having Richard Attenborough, the creator of “Gandhi” and the patron saint of grandiose, reverential moviemaking, direct a film biography of Charlie Chaplin seems as unlikely a scenario as if the silent movie clown had gotten the notion of grabbing a sheet and playing the Indian leader himself.

And, in fact, Attenborough’s “Chaplin” (selected theaters) is an unfortunate melding of style and subject matter, too intent on turning the Little Tramp into an icon to be regarded with stately awe to do justice to the disturbing energy of his life. Given that, “Chaplin” is a more diverting piece of work than might be imagined, due to both a just-so performance by Robert Downey Jr. in the title role and an engrossing and detailed physical re-creation of the early days of the picture business.

Downey, excellent in very different kinds of roles in “Less Than Zero” and “True Believer,” portrays Chaplin from his teen-age years all the way through his receiving of an honorary Oscar (in makeup that turns him into a cross between Charles Foster Kane and the Phantom of the Opera) at age 83.

Lithe and lively and looking remarkably like the younger Chaplin, Downey does more than master the man’s celebrated duck walk and easy grace. In one of those acts of will and creativity that actors come up with when you least expect it, Downey becomes Chaplin, re-creating his character and his chilly soul so precisely that even the comedian’s daughter Geraldine, a featured player here, was both impressed and unnerved.

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And Attenborough, with the help of production designer Stuart Craig and one-of-a-kind cinematographer Sven Nykvist, has placed this excellent performance in a finely crafted frame. Everything, as might be expected from Nykvist, is beautifully lit and composed, and intricate care has been taken to re-create the apparatus of silent filmmaking. Sometimes, as when Chaplin walks alone onto an empty, muslin-covered stage as the cloth billows in the light, the visual effect is wonderful.

One of the problems with “Chaplin” (rated PG-13 for nudity and language), however, is that everything starts to seem too careful; even the coal dust on the walls of the grim turn-of-the-century London where the actor grew up feels as if it were placed there speck by speck. The film’s stately pace, its “you are treading on hallowed ground” sensibility, its insistently uplifting music, are wearing in a way totally at variance with the knock-about sensibility of its subject’s brash slapstick comedies.

As written by William Boyd and Bryan Forbes and William Goldman, working from a Diana Hawkins story based on both Chaplin’s autobiography and David Robinson’s definitive biography, “Chaplin” makes use of a venerable but effective framing device. Anthony Hopkins is cast as George Hayden, a fictional editor who comes to visit the elderly actor in 1963 to ask him about holes in the text of that forthcoming autobiography.

So the distinguished gentleman is led to relive the kind of brutal, Dickensian childhood that the English specialize in. Raised without a father by a mother (Geraldine Chaplin, playing her own grandmother) who went in and out of madness, living off fish heads and enduring stretches in a workhouse, young Charles grows into an accomplished comic performer. Helped by his elder half-brother Sydney (Paul Rhys), he joins Fred Karno’s vaudeville troupe and his wondrous drunk act quickly makes him a headliner.

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On a Karno tour of America, Chaplin discovers “the flickers” and almost immediately gets a telegram from impresario Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) to come out to California and start appearing in them himself. Once he stumbles onto his Little Tramp persona and perfects his slapstick routines (which the film amusingly re-creates), Chaplin goes from success to success, becoming one of the richest, most famous men in the world before his 30th birthday.

From there, Chaplin’s experiences accurately reflect the comment that his timing in life was the reverse of what it was on the screen. On a professional level, he resisted the coming of sound with a Luddite fierceness, and, fueled by his invariable attraction to young if not underage women, his personal problems became messier and messier. The haunting aftereffects of an unrequited first love for teen-age music hall dancer Hetty Kelly is the movie’s explanation for this predilection for what Mary Pickford delicately calls “jail bait,” and the film underscores that theory by casting the same actress, Moira Kelly, as both Hetty and the most lasting love of Chaplin’s life, Oona O’Neill.

One of the problems “Chaplin” faces is that Attenborough’s respectful tendencies are unsuited to the kind of person he is dealing with. A perfectionist obsessed with getting things right, a cold fish as well as a workaholic, Chaplin is not the best candidate for the film’s attempt to turn him into a genius beset by petty men, the pettiest being FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn), who seems to have nursed a lifelong grudge against the actor. And the script’s overearnest attempt to turn Chaplin into a paragon of political correctness doesn’t ring quite right either.

Though Downey was an inspired choice, the rest of the casting, with familiar faces playing historical roles (Kevin Kline is Douglas Fairbanks, James Woods is a nasty attorney, etc.) is not as successful. Perhaps infected by Attenborough’s sedate attitude, these performances come off flat and uninflected. The only exception to this is Diane Lane, who breaks through the blandness as actress Paulette Goddard, a wife with a mind of her own. If this interesting but stodgy film had more of her spunk, we’d all be better off.

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‘Chaplin’

Robert Downey Jr.: Charlie Chaplin

Geraldine Chaplin: Hannah Chaplin

Anthony Hopkins: George Hayden

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Paul Rhys Sydney: Chaplin

Diane Lane: Paulette Goddard

Moira Kelly: Hetty Kelly/Oona O’Neill

A Carolco/Le Studio Canal+/RCS Video production, released by TriStar Pictures. Director Richard Attenborough. Producers Richard Attenborough, Mario Kassar. Screenplay William Boyd and Bryan Forbes and William Goldman, story by Diane Hawkins based on “My Autobiography” by Charles Chaplin and “Chaplin: His Life and Art” by David Robinson. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist. Editor Anne V. Coates. Costumes John Mollo, Ellen Mirojnick. Music John Barry. Production design Stuart Craig. Running time: 2 hours, 23 minutes.

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MPAA-rated PG-13 (nudity and language).


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